Ben Judy builds and leads human-centered design teams

Head of Design User Experience Strategy & Ops Remote collaboration Designing digital things since 1999

7 Tips for Effective Customer Interviews

Here are seven tips for conducting interviews with customers or end-users of your digital products and services.

1. Ask about emotions

It’s easy to structure an interview such that you only focus on behavior, expectations, or beliefs. But guess what often drives those things? How a person feels.

Fortunately, most people appreciate being asked about their feelings. Ask direct questions about your customers’ perception of the brand, likes / dislikes, and high & low emotional moments.

Not sure what human emotions are? (It’s okay – my wife suspects I don’t, either. 😉) Here’s a handy list. You can put this or a similar list in front of your customer and ask them to point to the emotions they associate with your brand and moments that matter in digital user experiences. I’m not joking, it works.

Don’t suggest how you suspect they feel.

Absolutely avoid questions such as, “So that made you feel good, right?” or “I bet that made you feel disappointed, didn’t it?” You must sit back and let them tell you how they feel.

2. Capture surprising insights.

If you are 20 minutes into a customer interview and you haven’t learned something that surprised you, it’s time to consider a new approach.

There’s no need to conduct interviews – or, indeed, any kind of research – to simply verify what you already think you know. The whole point is to shift your understanding about customer attitudes, behavior, emotions, and mental models.

Now you’re seeing a random picture of a raccoon holding a kitten. You never could have predicted I’d throw that into this article. Valuable customer insights are just like that. You never saw them coming, but you're here for them—and the really good ones seem kinda weird.

But insights don’t come to you; you must seek them out. Prepare your list of questions with the goal of getting to things you couldn’t possibly know. Prioritize topics by degree of uncertainty. Fearlessly pursue insights that might cause you to rethink your entire product strategy.

Don’t conclude an interview only having validated things you already believed to be true.

3. Observe behavior as much as possible.

Humans are notoriously unreliable when it comes to describing our own behavior and recounting the details of our experiences. We just can’t help ourselves; our self-awareness is low and our memories are faulty.

One problem with interviews is that you are primarily asking people to describe what they have done – or what they believe they might do. A simple interview doesn’t allow you to actually see them do it.

Get creative. There is usually some opportunity within an interview session to simulate a situation. For example, if you work for a retailer, take customers into a store and help them contextualize the questions you’re asking. Maybe even act out a scenario within the store.

Don’t assume what people say they do is what they actually do.

4. Allow the customer time to think (fall in love with ‘uncomfortable silence’)

Interviews require us to do something that feel very unnatural to many people: wait and listen. I struggle with this as much as anyone! It feels so passive and disempowering to ask a question and then just listen to what someone else has to say without injecting my own ideas, beliefs, or suppositions. This is not how we usually converse throughout the day, especially in an office environment.

But this is exactly what we must do when interviewing customers. One of the easiest mistakes to make is to ‘lead the witness.’ And this can happen even in very subtle ways. There mere suggestion that you might think A and not B will inevitably lead your interviewee to respond to your own opinions, not the bare question you asked.

The effect is compounded if your customers are being compensated for an interview. You’re paying them for their time; naturally, they want to please you in return. They will unconsciously lean toward telling you what they think you want to hear.

You can’t be too extreme about this. It isn’t enough to say that your opinions aren’t important or that you won’t be offended by what they say. You simply must behave as if you have no opinions whatsoever so as not to influence your interviewee. Be boring. Allow your customer to be incredibly interesting.

Don’t finish their sentences or make suggestions about what you think they might want to say.

Long periods of uncomfortable silence might happen when you’re listening. It’s okay. As long as your question was clear, just let the silence go on until your interviewee is ready to share.

Incidentally, this is why it’s important to schedule ample time for an interview session. If you feel rushed to get through all of your questions, you’ll be more likely to hurry your customer along and finish their thoughts for them.

5. Ask lots of follow-up questions.

This is my favorite interviewing tip: if you don’t know what to say, just ask, “Why?”

Let’s think about research methods for a second. Interviews are more dynamic than surveys because you can dynamically ask follow-up questions. After your customer has answered a new question, you should almost always chase it with a “why,” “how,” or “when?” Do this five times and you’ll almost always learn something you otherwise wouldn’t have learned. Keep digging until you strike gold.

“Tell me more about that” should be a phrase you use often.

Don’t ask a simple question, get a simple answer, and call it a day.

There’s always more to the story. Get after it!

6. Make the conversation visual and tangible.

Psychologically, we think better and communicate more clearly with visual aids and artifacts we can touch and manipulate. There are entire fields of study (such as embodied cognition) that tell us there are limits to a conversation wherein the participants only engage in verbal discussion.

If you are in the same physical space with your customer, use that to your advantage. Put the app in the customer’s hands. Ask them to sketch ideas, write on sticky notes, or act out scenarios. Present options on a sheet of paper and have them circle the one they like best. Build something with Play-Doh. Get the conversation on paper, on the walls, or in any physical form that makes communication richer and more meaningful. (Bonus: you can save these artifacts or take pictures of them for sharing what you learned.)

Don’t just sit back and talk.

You are more than a mouth and a pair of ears, and so is your customer. Make it feel less like an interview and more like a full-body experience to fully engage the mind and the senses.

7. Build the organization’s ‘brain.’

This one is last because it’s the hardest to do.

Share your insights with the team. Integrate new understanding into the collective knowledge base.

Ideally, a research lead will establish processes and methods for persistent, institutional knowledge resulting from customer research. Absent a comprehensive, enterprise-grade research program your team won’t have an effective means of doing this with consistency.

Until that happens – if you participate in interviews or any kind of customer research, take it upon yourself to disseminate what you learned far and wide. Over-sharing is better than failing to share.

Don’t keep your customer insights locked in a silo or make them hard to find.